June 22, 2018

What is online learning? Seeking definition

Using Kubi robots and iPads for telepresence at Michigan State University: the new online learning?

The survey

One reason I have not been blogging much this year is because I have been heavily engaged in leading a national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian public post-secondary education. We have now secured sufficient funding to at least complete the survey, thanks to further grants of $80,000 from eCampus Ontario’s Research and Innovation fund, and $20,000 from Pearson Canada.

The questionnaire for the survey has been piloted in 14 institutions and is in the process of being distributed to all the institutions this week. The questionnaire is going to 78 universities, 88 colleges and 46 Cégeps (Collèges d’Enseignment Général Et Professionnelle), a total of 212 institutions in total, all Canadian.

The questionnaire is being routed primarily through the office of the Provost or VP Education in most cases. There are francophone as well as anglophone versions of the questionnaire, depending on the main language used by each institution. Institutions have up to three weeks to complete it. We are asking all institutions to complete the questionnaire whether or not they are currently offering online or distance courses or programs as we are also asking about future directions. The results will be available in early September. 

What are we talking about?

One of our greatest challenges has been ensuring that every institution uses the same understanding of what a distance education course or program means, what constitutes a fully online course, and especially what terms such as blended or hybrid learning mean.

It was clear from feedback from the piloting of the questionnaire in 14 colleges and universities that there is no general agreement about these terms, so we have had to make somewhat arbitrary definitions to guide the institutions. I thought it might be interesting to share these with you and get your reactions, although it is now too late to change the definitions for the survey this year.

Distance education courses. Distance education courses are those where no classes are held on campus – all instruction is conducted at a distance. Distance education courses may use a variety of delivery methods, such as print-based, video/audioconferencing, as well as internet-based.

Online courses. A form of distance education where the primary delivery mechanism is via the internet. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. All instruction is conducted at a distance.

Synchronous online courses. Courses where students need to participate at the same time as an instructor, but at a separate location other than an institutional campus. These courses may be delivered by video conferencing, web conferencing, audio conferencing, etc.

Asynchronous courses. Courses where students are not required to participate in any sessions at the same time as the instructor. These may be print-based courses, or online courses using a learning management system, for instance.

For the purposes of this survey, we wish to exclude inter-campus delivery where students are required to attend a different campus from the instructor. However, we wish to include delivery via the internet or other distance technologies to small learning centres in remote areas.

Online programs. A for-credit program that can be completed entirely by taking online courses, without the need for any on-campus classes. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously.

Blended/hybrid courses. These are courses designed to combine both online and face-to-face teaching in any combination. For the purposes of this questionnaire, we are interested in those courses where some, but not all, of the face-to-face teaching has been replaced by online study.

Credit courses. These are courses that lead to institutional credits (degrees, diplomas, etc.). We wish to include information on all credit online courses, whether they are managed by a central service or by individual departments or by Continuing Studies. [For the purpose of this survey, the focus is primarily on online and distance courses and programs for credit]. 

Online contract training. These are online training programs that may or may not be for credit recognition but are designed to meet a particular industry or training need. 

MOOCs. These are massive, open, online courses. The key features are:

  • No fee (except possibly for an end of course certificate),
  • The courses are open to anyone: there is no requirement for prior academic qualifications in order to take the course,
  • The courses are not for credit.

Note that we are distinguishing between distance education and online learning. We are treating online learning as just one form of distance education. We will be particularly interested to see if there are still significant amounts of non-online distance education still in use.

The problem with definitions

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

We hope that the questionnaire will be able to capture, at least for a moment in time, the extent to which the field of online learning and distance education is fragmenting into many different approaches and delivery methods. In such a volatile context, ‘best practices’ based on a context that is no longer dominant will become more challenged and some interesting questions about the quality and effectiveness of these new approaches are bound to be raised.

But that is jumping ahead. I must learn to be patient and wait for the results to come in. In the meantime, your comments about the definitions we are using or about the value of such a survey will be most welcome.


  1. Darco Jansen says:

    Very nice initiatives Tony,

    Three comments on these definitions

    – one should define what a course is, and if a kind of recognition option should be included. For example, a MOOC offers a full course experience for free and as such some kind of recognition option should be offered for free (by definition course)
    – proposed definitions should include some statement on what for-credit and institutional credits imply. Recognition options could be just a certification of participation of a course, a badge, etc. But for-credit and institutional credits should only be related to (as part of) formal recogised (acreditated) programs
    – in MOOC I miss at least two charactistics 1) it should be designed for ‘massive audience’ and 2) it should be offered completely online. See https://www.openuped.eu/images/docs/Definition_Massive_Open_Online_Courses.pdf

    • Many thanks for this, Darco – excellent points.

      You are correct about the need to define a course and what ‘for-credit’ means, although this does depend somewhat on the context.

      Online learning is definitely shaking up what we mean by a course, with the introduction of badges and other forms of recognition for often quite short modules of study. In North America there are more or less definitions of a course based on the Carnegie classification system but this refers to time in class on campus. Online learning for credit tends to try to match the equivalent of on-campus study time, but competency-based learning for instance changes that. The more the ‘standard’ becomes based on learning outcomes the more difficult the definition of a course based on the standard three- or six-credit course linked to classroom-time becomes.

      Because this is the first year we are running this survey in Canada, we deliberately focused on courses for credit, as although provincial systems vary considerably in institutional organizational structure there is a great deal in common about how teaching and learning is provided in terms of what a course for credit means (these are ultimately linked in to the institutional accreditation system which in Canada is determined by provincial government, although once accredited, institutions have a fair degree of flexibility and autonomy.)

      When we get into non-credit programming though, there are no commonly agreed definitions of what constitutes a course. Although in our survey most questions will have an open-ended comment box to capture variance in ‘standard’ definitions, national surveys work best when they are examining commonly agreed definitions. Great diversity in a system is more difficult to capture because you don’t know what you don’t know when designing the questionnaire – a more qualitative approach is then required but that pushes up the cost on a national scale.

      However, your main point still stands – we are seeing increased diversity in the provision of teaching and learning, partly driven by online learning but also other factors such as co-op and experiential learning that defy standard ‘course’ definitions. However I’m not sure we will be able to capture that in this first survey.

  2. Thank you so much Tony for making your book on Teaching in the digital age available for free. From the little bits i have read, it is a must read for anyone teaching in higher education in the 21st century. It is getting more and more ineffective to use traditional methods of teaching wtth the current students who have grown with digital learning devices.

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